Sat, 04 Jan 2003

Rebuilding shattered tourism

Rhenald Kasali, Contributor, Jakarta

In 2000, Malaysia succeeded in attracting 10.22 million international tourists, double the number of foreign visitors to Indonesia. Many observers believe that Malaysia's success was particularly due to its impressive and intensive promotional programs in the international media.

Indonesia, with its vast array of tourist destinations, could only attract five million foreign tourists, while Singapore, about as large as Batam island, managed to attract 7.7 million tourists. Singapore is also known to be launching an aggressive advertising campaign, along the lines of campaigns by South Africa, the Maldives, Caribbean countries and other nations.

Their messages are worded with finesse. Thailand offers its beauty with the slogan, "Amazing Thailand", the Maldives with "The Sunny Side of Life" and Hong Kong calls itself the "City of Life". Many countries have also built monuments as visual symbols of their presence on the world tourism market. Sydney flaunts its Opera House, Singapore has Sentosa Island, Dubai its Gold Song or Buy Al Arab, and Paris the Louvre Museum. Other nations rely on their cultural heritage, like the pyramids in Egypt, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Taj Mahal in Agra.

These countries convey their messages across the globe in ads, commercials and brochures via the printed media and television, as well as the Internet.

Is now the right time for Indonesia to launch an intensive campaign similar to these countries and to adopt a positioning strategy to be introduced throughout the world? Nearly everyone involved in the Indonesian tourist industry is eager to see an immediate promotional drive by the government, so that tourists who canceled their visits after the Bali tragedy will return to the country to boost the industry.

In fact, tourism campaigns cannot just be launched without first preparing all of the elements of the country's tourist industry. Without thorough preparation, the messages could backfire and cause the country to be totally deserted.

Before a major tourism campaign can begin, at least five myths about the country first must be corrected, namely those of security, products, marketing means, major players and main market targets.

Everybody says Indonesia is not a secure place. But when the security apparatus is asked to confirm this, no definite answer can be given. Security authorities maintain that they cannot work alone because security also has to do with the political situation. To the security agencies, security means stability. The atmosphere of insecurity is marked by demonstrations, rioting and terrorism.

Though terrorism and political issues are always referred to in international news reporting, tourism is inversely related to criminality. Therefore, before launching a tourism campaign the security apparatus should lower the crime rate covering robbery, rape, fraud and drug abuse.

The second myth involves the means of marketing. Some people believe in the importance of ads. But ads can only be put out when the products offered are ready to sell and sell well. Just ask tourists who have visited Borobudur Temple.

Will they encourage their friends to go there? Perhaps not: it's hot, dirty, no toilets or garbage cans can be found, incoming visitors must fight through those leaving and hawkers are pushing their goods. Or try to see Bali's Pura Besakih shrine and cross over to the open tombs of Trunyan. What experience do you gain? We must ask ourselves whether we are really prepared to campaign for these beautiful products.

Products are the third myth. We frequently consider natural attractions as tourism assets. Actually, tourists want both natural surroundings and entertainment, which can range from the sound of running streams, songbirds, dances.

Fourth, there is the myth of major players. Those playing a major part in the tourist industry are not the investors who build hotels, malls, recreation centers, transportation facilities, etc. Instead, they are big communities comprising ordinary citizens, traditional groups, regional administrations, security institutions, etc. They all have to be actively involved in designing tourism products and maintaining them.

Lastly, market targets have also become a myth. It is often assumed that foreign tourists are the main target of the tourist industry. This is a mistake. Data from the World Tourism Organization show that domestic tourists make up the majority of the industry, almost reaching 80 percent. Why do Jakartans prefer Bangkok, Penang and Singapore to Lombok, Bunaken, Ngarai Sianok and Lake Toba? It is because these regional attractions are better promoted here than our own attractions. Why not the reverse?

Tourism promotions are important, but it is far more imperative to dispel all these fallacies before launching any overseas marketing drive. Wonderful and safe products with the support of their communities will eventually sell themselves.